Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Director Haydn Reiss talks about his new film, “Robert Bly: A Thousand Years of Joy”

A still from "Robert Bly: A Thousand Years of Joy"
I fell in love with Robert Bly’s poetry when I was in college and read his book “Silence in the Snowy Fields.” I’ve been an admirer ever since, following him through his various books and collections, carrying around a battered copy of his Kabir translations, attending his readings (and once reading with him, as part of a large group of poets in Morris, Minnesota, hardly believing my luck), and wishing I could write like him, which I never could.

California-based filmmaker Haydn Reiss has made a documentary about Bly’s life, poetry and importance to literature and the men’s movement (which began with his best-selling, often parodied book “Iron John”). I first heard about the film in 2014 and have pestered Reiss about it ever since.

This week, “Robert Bly: A Thousand Years of Joy” comes to the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF) for screenings on April 14 and 17. I spoke with Reiss for MinnPost last week. Here’s more (much more!) from that interview, including Reiss’ story of how he settled on the film’s perfect title. I could use only a small part of the interview on MinnPost, but the rest was too interesting to leave unsaid. So here’s a deep dive for those who want to know more about Bly, the film and the filmmaker.

Haydn Reiss on how a 10-minute short became a feature-length documentary:

HR: When Robert was turning 85, I said to myself, “I have a lot of footage from over the years. I’ve had him in three other documentaries. Maybe I’ll put together a little 10-minute piece for his birthday and send it on to the family and they can look at it.”
There’s no biography on Robert, so there was nothing for me to draw from. I had to do a lot of my own research and readings and interviews to piece together what we thought we could tell. And of course it’s a film; what can we illustrate it with?

I’m very good at stretching a dollar. I’ve become too good at begging. I’m ready to retire that. But I often need money. I wound up doing 25 interviews in five states and two countries, working streamlined. … Why so many people? Because Robert crossed paths with a lot of people and I wanted a reflection on that.

I love Robert, and love can lead you astray, but it can also lead you on. There’s a little 8-line poem of Robert’s which I’m shocked didn’t make it into the film. It’s on the DVD as one of the extras, and it’s called “Gratitude to Old Teachers.” That 8-line poem was going to be my framing device. [The 10-minute film Reiss first planned to make] was going to be called “Gratitude to Old Teachers,” and it was going to have poems written by the teachers who inspired Robert, and then we realized that we are inspired by Robert; he is our teacher. So that poem – that theme – to me is still the heart of it.

On meeting Bly: 

In 1990 or 1991 – “Iron John” came out in 1990 – I’m living in L.A.,  working on feature films as a small cog in a big wheel, and somehow I learned there was going to be this men’s event up in Ojai with Robert Bly. ... I get there and there are 300 men including Martin Sheen and his boys. I was still a naive, immature man. My immaturity about where I was in my life was revealed to me.  I projected all of my father wishes onto Robert. I had lost my father fairly young in life. … I wish I could have made a time machine to send everybody back 20 years to one of those events, where Robert is in full power and form and brilliance, and have you taste that, because it’s life-changing.

In the years of working on the film and talking to all these different people, I repeatedly was stunned by how many of them Robert had touched in a significant way. Nobody I interviewed had a mediocre response. One after another, I thought, “When did this man have the time to create the depths of relationships where he could be that impactful?” It’s something about him; it’s something about his generosity; it’s something about being a great teacher, and all those aspects.

Robert’s got a shadow side. He is a human being. Regardless, I feel that Robert, in his own search in working on his own life, has always found things, and if he valued them he shared them with others. At his events and readings and conferences, he brought you into what he was pondering and thinking and reading and questioning. … He’d be in these events and the conversation would get to a certain pitch, and rather than more conversation, Robert would reach into his bag, pull out some beaten-up book of poetry and read you [poems by] Antonio Machado or Rumi, or he’d know them by heart and he’d just say them. He’d be able to pick just the poem you needed to hear. ... The magic of poems is alchemical. Suddenly your soul, your heart, everything is dragged out of you into this gift of language that can help us. ... Robert showed me what poetry could be."

When asked “Are you a poet yourself?”

If the question is “Do I write poetry?” I would say no. Have I written some poems? Yes. But to me, a poet is someone who writes poems with real commitment and craft. I think a poet is more than output. That’s not enough.

But I read a lot of poetry. I go to public poetry readings. I love to read poems out loud. I learned that from Robert and others – the pleasure of reading poetry out loud.

On poetry today:

When I was a kid, at some point everybody wanted to be in a rock band. I’ve seen for the last 15 years the rise of everybody wanting to be a filmmaker. There’s a certain amount of people who want to say, “I’m a poet.” The barrier for entry has lowered, and people, in my view, want the superficial sense of it. …

Even though Robert in a sense did a lot of teaching, he was very critical of the university writing program for a number of reasons. First and foremost, because you have to have something to write about. You have to live and have experiences, and then you might come up with some stuff that’ll be food for your poetry. … And he was extremely hard-working. How hard-working are kids today, and people writing today?  Do they really know their craft? Poet is not just some hip name you give yourself and you write some boring, self-centered, trite stuff and call it a poem. Back then, you had to be willing to do translation. That was part of your poetic development. You had to be willing to write criticism meant to help fellow writers. Today … we could go on, but you get my point.

Robert Bly and Haydn Reisd
On how he got started making films about poets and poetry (“Robert Bly: A Thousand Years of Joy” is his fourth):

When I saw Bly in ’91, I had a moment there. I realized I wasn’t meant to be a studio executive. It wasn’t going to happen for me. I was just too … whatever. And I had been smitten by Robert, and I wanted more.

I went to another conference up near Seattle, and at some point in that three- or four-day retreat, Robert said, “I’m going to bring out a poet now who’s a dear friend of mine, and we’re going to do some reading together,” and he brought out William Stafford.

Stafford was about a dozen years older than Robert, and outwardly a different kind of man. He was quieter and contained. Robert is loud – big and boisterous. And they sat side-by-side and for about 40 minutes they traded stories and poems and jokes, and it was brilliance. It was heartbreakingly beautiful, too, to see older men who had such wisdom, kinship, care. I remember feeling less afraid of getting old because I saw what you could become.

I had been working for a film director and I thought, “Why can’t I make a film?” This is still back in the day. This is before Avid and Final Cut Pro. You still had to have a little bit of chutzpah to try to be a documentary filmmaker. But I said, “Why not?” and I went up to Robert at some anti-war gathering and said, “I’d like to make a film about you and poetry.”

He said, “The only person I want to do anything with right now is William Stafford.” Then he said, “Do you have any money?” At this time, Robert was in full “Iron John” bloom – magazines and Bill Moyers. I sort of exaggerated that I had some money, which I didn’t, but I thought I could try to get some nominal amount. Anyway, he said, “Okay if Bill says okay,” and William Stafford – gracious, lovely man – said yes. So in the next couple years, I made my first documentary. It was “William Stafford and Robert Bly: A Literary Friendship.”

In the course of a year or so I went up to Minnesota, when Stafford was going to be there with Robert, and got them together. Then I went up to Portland, Oregon, where Stafford lived, when Robert was coming to Portland, and [filmed] readings in cabins and had the two of them wandering the bookshelves or Powell’s Books. They’re it. There are no more moving parts. They’re the only people in the film. But if you like William Stafford and Robert Bly you’ll love the film, because they’re great guides, and they had such a wonderful friendship.

I was editing in August ’93 and got the call that Bill, at 79, had dropped dead of a heart attack. We were stunned. We were getting the film done for his 80th birthday tribute celebration in January, which we still all went ahead with, and they brought the film there. I thought – this is the first film I’ve done, and the first time I’m showing it to the public, under these conditions, to Robert and Ruth Bly and the Stafford extended family. Stafford was very loved in Portland. He had taught at Luther Clark College for, like, 20 years. I thought – I hope this is going to be okay, because people are in serious mourning.

The film was embraced and loved, and for years later I’d see Robert at events, and Robert would thank me, and for at least a year or two after Bill passed, Robert started every reading he gave with a Stafford poem. He loved Bill Stafford. He loved me for making the film that brought them together and left this document.

I did my second film around Bill Stafford in 2009, “Every War Has Two Losers,” because Stafford was a conscientious objector in the Second World War. I made a short film about that. Robert’s in that, too. So were Alice Walker and Maxine Hong Kingston and others.

And [before] then [Rumi translator] Coleman Barks had seen the Stafford/Bly film, and the Rumi thing was starting to really heat up in America. In 1998 or so, I saw Coleman at an event and he said, “I really loved that film on Robert and Bill Stafford and you should do something on Rumi.” Naively, I said “Sure!” And so in ’98 I made “Rumi, Code of the Heart,” which centers around Coleman, but Robert plays a significant role because it was Robert who got Coleman translating Rumi. Robert knew Rumi before Coleman and thought Coleman could be the translator of record. And so that film was very well received and much loved

[By 2009] I felt, “I’ve done Robert. I’m done.” But I wasn’t, because it was still not this film that showed all these chapters of his life. I discovered so many things about him that I went back to the well.

On what he left on the cutting-room floor:

It’s ridiculous. If you have a strong appetite for something, you want more. I had to make a film that was not just for the hardcore. I had to make a film that hopefully, even if you didn’t know who Robert Bly was, you could follow his story and be drawn into it. I wanted a film that would have a chance to be seen. So going deep down into one corner of his world would’ve been too much. There had to be a balance to how deep we could go into any one thing.

I left out a lot of things. I could’ve made a 4-hour film, but being a filmmaker means you have to eventually self-edit, and you have to leave things out. On the DVD there’s a half-hour of extra little bits and bobs that are all, I think, delicious. There’s a poem from the ’70s called “Going Out Over Pastures.” It’s so incredible – a wonderful poem.

For poetry writers, there was a whole lot of stuff on the craft of poetry. If I just strung together everything Robert gave in terms of craft lectures, it would be brilliant for anybody trying to write.

On the surprise of seeing black poets and spoken-word artists – Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith, Cave Canem co-founder Cornelius Eady and Roger Bonair-Agard – sing the praises of an aging white poet:

I’ve heard Robert say, “I’m not white; I’m pink.” He’s got a pink face. He was born into a homogenous community – a Norwegian-American farm community – but he traveled and he continued to travel. In fact, Robert probably traveled earlier and farther than a lot of the writers and people of the time. He was digging into Indian poetry and Persian poetry in the 1970s, when not a lot of people were looking out there to these different cultures. Then he went to great effort – translating is a tremendous task – to bring it back into our culture.

This is what I was saying earlier: If Robert finds something that he thinks might be helpful, he shares it. His discovery of Pablo Neruda in an Oslo library in the 1950s leads him to realize that [the writings of] Neruda and others have something that we don’t have in America, and we need, so he comes back and starts to translate that stuff, self-publish that stuff, because he’s trying to contribute to American culture. His range and where he will look is so remarkable. He goes far afield.

On the final film:

I don’t think it’s a story about the past. I don’t think it’s about a man’s past, even though there is a man’s story of 90 years in it. I think it’s a story of today. The great real artists – how I define the word “artist” – are people who can see a little bit further, think a little bit clearer, and the form in which they bring it back is in the arts.

That’s what an artist is, and in [Bly’s] case, an artist of language. You read what he’s written. It’s as fresh today as when he first wrote it or said it. He’s touching into very deep waters.

This is the difference from the confessional poets … as Robert once said about the confessional poets, “A lot of their writing is very good, but after you hear the poem you feel like you should send them $10.” He’s a community guy. You don’t feel his “I” hammering away at you. He’s right in his poems, but somehow you find your way in. You resonate with [his words], and the next thing you know you’re taken somewhere. …

I love his later poetry more than his early poetry now. I’m shocked by that. There are a lot of early poems I love, but he’s gotten richer and deeper, wiser and more musical and powerful.

On arriving at the title of the film:

In 2013, Robert gets the Robert Frost medal from the Poetry Society of America, a venerable organization in New York City. To get the medal, you have to show up and you have to do a little reading. So Robert’s in his mid-’80s, but he goes, and I hear about this thing and say, “I’m going.” There’s still footage [to shoot] and hopefully there’ll be something there, and on a wing and prayer I get there with my buddy and camera.

It’s an evening event in this great old building, but no air conditioning, and it’s summer and it’s hot. A bunch of other little awards will be given out, and then the biggest award, the Frost medal, will end the evening and Robert will read a little, too. So [the event] is packed.

I set my camera up in the back of the room. There’s no house technician. There’s nobody there to run the PA system from Poetry Society of America, so we run a cable under all these chairs and up to the lectern and plug in the mic. And then we wait, because we have to wait through all these other poets getting awards for this and that.

I will say that there were a couple [of poems] I liked a lot, but there were a whole lot that were like … I’m scratching my head. It’s negative poetry, it’s self-centered poetry. For me, it’s like … yikes.

And we’re waiting through this and the evening is going longer and it’s hot, and finally Robert gets up and he gets to the lectern, but he doesn’t want to stand. So they pull over a chair and then somebody in the front of the room rips the microphone from the lectern to move it over to where he’s sitting, and in the course of that, clips my audio cable.

I lose my audio. And in order to regain my audio, I would have to stop the evening, which has already gone long. Everybody’s hot, impatient, Robert wants to go, and I can’t get my audio. So there I am. I’ve come all the way to New York, and in a moment of whatever, the audio gets clipped, and I can’t stop [everything] to rethread it, and I sit back there feeling pretty defeated.

And his daughter sits next to him and holds the microphone for him, and Robert reads about 10 poems, and his voice isn’t booming as in the old days, but it’s clear. And the selection is spot on. Each poem is just right, and it’s as if the ceiling opens up and after all these very small poems and very small ideas. the sky opens up and the universe can come into the room. Robert’s language and poetry and ideas are so big, and suddenly you feel something bigger come into the room, and I’m being moved along by this.

I’m not getting it for the film, so that’s sort of heartbreaking. And finally he gets to the last poem, and it’s “Stealing Sugar from the Castle,” and two-thirds of the way through he stops and looks up and out into the room and says, “Do you think it’s going to be over soon?” And I look around and see these New Yorkers looking at their watches. It’s a long evening. [But] he’s not talking about the evening. He’s talking about eternity. And he says, “I don’t think so. I think it’s just getting started.”

And then he reads the final stanzas, which begin with the line “I don’t mind your saying I will die soon.” If a 20-year-old says that line, or a 30-year-old or even a 50-year-old, it’s not a big deal. You know they don’t quite mean it. But he’s an 85-year-old who says:

I don’t mind you saying I will die soon.
Even in the sound of the word soon, I hear
the word you, which begins every sentence of joy.

“You’re a thief!” the judge said. “Let’s see
Your hands!” I showed my callused hands in court.
My sentence was a thousand years of joy.

And that was it. It stunned me because here’s this old man who’s not saying that when I die, it’s all going with me. Most people [think], “I don’t want it to go on without me.” But he’s saying a couple of things. First, “It’s just getting started.” There’s that. And secondly, when he reviews his life, the hands are calloused. That means he’s lived a life. The sentence he gets is 1,000 years of joy. Through it all, this is having this life. And it hit me: This is what’s great about Robert. This is why he matters. This is the guidance he offers: How to value your life.

I’m post-irony. I’m not for that outlook. I could have hedged my bets, but I didn’t. That’s a poem where he’s sort of summarizing his life, and when he adds it all up – and he had a lot of losses that I didn’t even put in the film – he still says it was 1,000 years of joy. And I say, stay with that.

More importantly, it’s what I want to hear. When I struggle to make these little films, part of it is because I want to be in that material, and I’m hoping it’s going to feed me. I hope it feeds you, but I’m also hoping it feeds me. And I look at what I want to be fed. Do I need to be told one more time about how screwed up we are? No. There are plenty of other people doing that.

[I also] realized that to enter festivals, I needed an upbeat, over-the-top title. How can you top 1,000 years of joy? That’s a lot of joy.

On why people should see this film:

I’ve screened it now a number of times. People feel good afterwards. My hope is that you see the film and you leave thinking not just what a wonderful fellow [Robert Bly] is, but you actually start thinking more about your own life. My hope is that his example – a man who struggled to be engaged with his times, to care for his inner life, to make a way in himself to try to live some authentic life – is an example that inspires us to do that in our lives. That’s my real hope.


To learn more about “Robert Bly: A Thousand Years of Joy,” watch the trailer and order the DVD from the filmmaker, visit robertblyfilm.com.

Early in the interview, Reiss mentions Bly’s poem “Gratitude to Old Teachers,” which was going to frame the short film he originally planned to make for Bly’s 85th birthday. Here’s the poem:

Gratitude to Old Teachers

When we stride or stroll across the frozen lake,
We place our feet where they have never been.
We walk upon the unwalked. But we are uneasy.
Who is down there but our old teachers?

Water that once could take no human weight –
We were students then – holds up our feet,
And goes on ahead of us for a mile.
Beneath us the teachers, and around us the stillness.

—Robert Bly